Melba Manero, six-term Surfside commissioner, dies

Melba Ines Manero served six terms as a Surfside commissioner, often running unopposed.

But even when someone challenged her, she’d win without much effort.

“Everyone knows me by now and knows how I think,” Manero said in 2002, during her final race. “I would like to think [the voters] are happy with what I have done over the years.”

Indeed they were, from 1992, when they first elected her, until she retired in 2004.

Manero, born in Sagua La Grande, Las Villas, Cuba, on Oct. 21, 1919, died June 1 — in her rocking chair, said former Mayor Paul Novack — holding a caregiver’s hand, lucid to her final moment.

She was 93 and had had a long career with the United Nations before settling in Surfside 33 years ago.

Novack called his friend and political ally “a woman of wisdom, courage, and dedication to public service.’’

He believes she was the first Hispanic woman and one of the first two Cuban Americans elected to any Surfside office, and only the third woman to serve on the commission.

She brought a valuable element of diversity to a city government eager to enrich its cultural mix, Novack said, as well as a sense of diplomacy from her U.N. experience.

“Melba helped to give voice to people who hadn’t had it and representation to those who hadn’t been represented, and draw everyone into participating in their own government,’’ he said.

She was fiscally conservative “and helped to manage the town’s finances in a very transparent and efficient manner,’’ Novack added. “She loved the small-town charm of the Surfside community and helped to protect and preserve it as a separate small town.’’

Fluent in Spanish, English and French, Manero earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Havana in 1940 then taught at colleges in the United States — St. Mary, in Kansas, and Smith in Western Massachusetts — before marrying husband Jose Fiallos, a U.N. statistician, in Mexico City, in 1950.

The couple met at the United Nations’ brand-new New York headquarters that year but returned to Sagua La Grande to have their son in October 1952. The couple later divorced.

Manero joined the administrative staff of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, which closed in 1959 after Fidel Castro took power. She went back to school for a master’s degree in library science then joined the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Havana.

The agency sent her to Ghana, West Africa, in 1965.

“This marked the start of her international career as chief archivist and documentalist with UNESCO,’’ said her son, a marketing consultant who lives in England.

She remained for three years before transferring to UNESCO in Paris, then back to New York, where she retired in 1979 and became a U.S. citizen. Then she helped bring her parents and sister from Cuba to the United States.

His mother was “a very independent woman,’’ Jose Manero said. “She was very interested in politics and political debate.’’

Former Commissioner Orestes Jimenez, elected to Manero’s seat for one term, had been a close friend since the 1980s, and recalled how she ran for office because “she was a community-oriented person who wanted to get involved.’’

She saw her job as listening to and helping residents, and supporting controlled development, Jimenez said.

He visited with her daily since her retirement, and arranged home care when she became too frail to live alone. He said she liked watching “Wheel of Fortune” on television and getting the latest news about Surfside.

“She was highly educated and you could talk to her about anything,’’ he said. “We talked about out how the city is doing and the elected officials...She cared deeply about Surfside.’’

Novack said that unlike many public officials, Manero “didn’t have to hear herself talk,’’ so that when she did, people listened.

“Melba was always very respectful, very dignified, very diplomatic, reflecting her background [and] very down to Earth,’’ he said.

In a letter to The Miami Herald in 2004 lauding Novack, who also left city government that year, Manero spoke of the era in which she served as “the most wonderful period in [Surfside’s] history. The town became far more beautiful, efficient and pleasant than ever before.’’

Surfside is “well known as a place where the public interest has always outweighed special interests,’’ she noted proudly. “We need to continue the legacy of good government that works to protect and enhance our hometown and its quality of life.’’

In addition to her son, Melba Manero is survived her sister, Ada Alvare of Surfside, and brother Alberto Manero of Arizona.

She was buried Monday at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Northwest Miami-Dade.

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